Inder Malhotra was one of the most respected journalists free India has produced. He richly deserves all the praise, all the affection, that has been showered on him in the past few days by those who have known and read him. But I will remember him for qualities that ran far deeper than his undoubted intelligence and proficiency. For Inder was more than just a fine journalist: he was a man of honour.
I met Inder in 1966, during my first days as a journalist, when I was a novice leader writer in the Hindustan Times and he was the star correspondent of the Statesman, then arguably the paper of record for India. We became colleagues in the Times of India which he joined a year after me in 1970, and remained colleagues for 16 years till 1986, when we both left the paper within weeks of each other.
In those 16 years we often disagreed, sometimes mildly competed, but my respect for him only grew with every passing year. For no year passed without bringing me fresh evidence that Inder did not only practice the ethical values he preached in his writings, he also lived them in the parts of his life that had nothing to do with his writing. Looking back at the half century I knew him, I think Inder Malhotra may be the most completely honourable man I have ever known.
Unlike several in the profession then, Inder was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He would tell me, and anyone who cared to know, with pride that his father had been a station master in the Indian railways. Inder’s education had therefore, throughout, been strictly local. But local schools were still giving excellent education in those days, so when I joined the Hindustan Times, although only 35 years old, Inder had already been the political correspondent of The Statesman for close to three years.
In the days before satellite TV, websites and perennial sound bytes, the political correspondent was, next to the editor, the most important person in a newspaper for it was the quality of his reporting that largely determined how seriously it was taken. It is safe to say that in 1966 Inder was the most influential journalist in the country. Living with my father , who was a senior civil servant, I had a ringside view of how they waited for his reports and columns, and how severely the government was shaken by some of them. My admiration for him grew in step with my envy.
He was the only Indian journalist whom Neville Maxwell — who was then the correspondent of the London Times in India and who went on to write India’s China War, in which he blamed India for triggering the 1962 border conflict — openly respected. Maxwell was an arrogant man, and praise for natives did not come to him lightly.
In 1967 Inder was already a star. Had he stayed on in the Statesman it is a reasonably sure bet that he would have ended up as its editor in the not too distant future.He did become its resident editor in Delhi after the last British editor, Evan Charlton left. But in 1969 or ’70 he resigned from the Statesman and moved to the Times of India in Bombay (now Mumbai) as its senior assistant Editor.
This was definitely not a move diagonally upwards of the kind that journalists now routinely make. Inder decided to resign from The Statesman well before he wrote to Shamlal, the legendary editor of the Times of India, for a job. The reason was the decision of the Board of the Statesman, spearheaded by Tatas, to fire Pran Chopra, who had succeeded Charlton as editor, on the grounds that he had become a communist and was pandering to the First United ( now Left) Front government in West Bengal.
I know from frequent later conversations with him that Inder did not agree with many of the positions the paper had been taking under Pran. But to him this gross violation of editorial independence by the owners was completely unacceptable. No one else in the Statesman followed him.
Enter Samir Jain
This was not the first time that Inder was to sacrifice his career at the dictates of his conscience. Sixteen years later, when he was the Resident Editor of the Times of India in Delhi, and the obvious successor to Girilal Jain, Inder did it again. The trigger that time was the arrival in Delhi of the Samir Jain, the 31-year old executive Vice-chairman of Bennett Coleman, the owners of the Times of India.
Within weeks of arriving in Delhi Samir let it be known that he wanted to be the force behind the Times of India as Katharine Graham was behind the Washington Post or Arthur Sulzberger behind the New York Times. To achieve this, he proposed to trifurcate the editorial function in the paper between an edit page editor for the op-ed page, a Managing Editor for the news pages and a Publisher, i.e a member of the owning family, to decide its broad policy positions.
Girilal Jain, the editor, opposed him tooth and nail but, as it turned out later, for personal rather than ideological reasons. Despite being next in line for the editorship, Inder Malhotra backed him to the hilt. He did so for the same reasons that had made him leave the Statesman 16 years earlier: that an editor’s first duty was to his readers and not to the newspaper’s owners; and that its policy positions could not therefore be subordinated to their interests, fears and ambitions. Acquiescing in Samir Jain’s proposed changes would destroy the very basis of the credibility that links a newspaper to its readers. When this breaks the newspaper leaves the Fourth Estate and becomes a part of the entertainment industry.
In later years I asked him when he had made the decision not to accept these changes. “ I had sensed that I might not be able to stay even before Samir unveiled his proposed changes formally”, he had replied. “The day after Samir took over in Delhi he called me up to the third floor (his office). We discussed this and that for about three quarters of an hour, and I came down. The next day he asked me to come up again. I went up and we again discussed nothing in particular for most of an hour. The third day he again asked me to come up. Something was happening that day, so I asked him to come down instead. He did not ask me to come up again”.
By this time Inder was 58, and there was no Times of India and no Shamlal, left to start all over again with. So he retired gracefully into the intellectual twilight that other journalists deprived of their vocation have entered: He went on a scholarship to the Woodrow Wilson centre for scholars in Washington DC; he wrote three books between 1991 and 2003, including a sympathetic biography of Indira Gandhi, and he became a valued columnist for several newspapers including the Indian Express.
Freed from the burden of administering a newspaper office he had more time for reflection, so his writing continued to improve in precision and depth. My moment of epiphany came when I read his 2011 series of articles on the 1962 war with China. To write his book Maxwell had asked for, but had been refused, cooperation by the India government. But China had welcomed him with open arms, and given him all the access, including to Chou En Lai, that he could have asked for. His book was therefore searing in its condemnation of India and exoneration of China.
What had made it difficult for Indian writers to refute any part of his analysis was the strong suspicion, which proved correct in 2014, that Maxwell was probably the only journalist who had somehow gained access to the Indian army’s own report, the Henderson-Brooks report, on the causes of the debacle. Despite not having gained access to it either, Inder decided in 2011, as the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war drew near, to write his own analysis of what had really happened. Inder, who had reported extensively on the war and its aftermath, decided to write a more balanced analysis of the causes and course of that war.
When Maxwell finally put part 1 of the Henderson-Brooks report on the web in February 2014, I decided to use it to compare Maxwell’s diatribe with Inder’s 2011 articles and build my own picture of what happened. I think it was then that I realised how good really good journalism could be. I hope the Indian Express will pay its own tribute to him by re-publishing those and his articles on the 1965 war in the form of a book.
All the time that I have been writing this tribute to a friend and mentor whom I will always miss, I have been wondering when my admiration for him turned into affection. I think it was as I observed and grew to appreciate, his devotion to his family. When Inder married former classical dancer Rekha Revri, she had just been through a long and difficult divorce. So along with a disturbed wife, he acquired a 16 year-old son, Anil who bitterly resented him for having taken his father’s place. No outsider will ever know what Inder did but in a few years that hostility in Anil had given way to an ever deepening affection.
What I remember is that throughout those years Inder never referred to Anil as anything other than his son, that he never displayed any impatience or distress, and that he unfailingly put his and his mother’s needs ahead of his own. In all that time he never denied Anil anything that would help him to realise his potential as an artist. When Anil expressed the desire to go to the USA to study art, Inder broke his back to find the money to help him through the initial months. What I did see for myself was the genuine love that Anil, who is now a highly esteemed artist living in the USA, came to feel for him.
Finally, when Rekha contracted a long and eventually fatal illness and withdrew from social life, Inder also withdrew to keep her company through her last years. Inder not only professed and acted upon, his values, but lived them. That made him a man of honour. But his devotion to his family made him noble. It is that rarest of qualities that has been diminished by his death. It is what I will remember, and always miss him for.